Who Will Help Save This 19th-Century Home in Darby?

The question of which historical buildings to keep and which to discard permeates Darby Borough.

Darby Main Street House preservation Screenshot via Google Street View

Screenshot via Google Street View

In what appears to be a case of survival of the fittest with a building preservation twist, one Darby resident has taken it upon himself to try and save a few of the countless historical buildings in the borough that are slowly spoiling under the swelling shadow of blight. The question is, which will live on and which will become scrap?

Among his saving projects, John Haigis, The Inquirer‘s Laura McCrystal reports, has been fighting to preserve a vacant white building that neighbors his own home on Main Street.”It has character,” he says of the deteriorating property, which, to his credit, he acknowledges is just another load on the already heavy historical building burden in Darby:

“I think there’s a blessing and a curse,” Haigis said. “The blessing is, we have such incredible historic fabric. The curse is, we have so many old buildings, they overwhelm available resources.”

Indeed, the area counts the oldest continually operating free library in the entire country in its boundaries. (That library, by the way, happens to sit across from the white building Haigis is trying to save.) According to McCrystal, it’s precisely this deep-rooted tie to the past that may make or break what happens to each building:

Though it can be difficult to attract economic development to Darby, preservationists say emphasizing a community’s past can lead to its revitalization.

“This is a moment that Darby could really build on all the architectural resources that it has,” said Aaron Wunsch, a professor of architectural history at the University of Pennsylvania. “People forget how dumpy and hopeless a place like Manayunk looked 20 years ago.”

Of course, there are two sides to every story. McCrystal writes that Mayor Helen Thomas asserts Darby simply does not have the adequate budget that could help preserve these aging structures, which tend to become safety hazards the more time they’re still up: “We’re trying to do the right thing not only for the borough history but for the people of the borough that are here.”

If local officials’ demolition plans for the white Main Street building come to naught, Haigis, who is the president of Darby Borough’s Historical Commission, would like to one day put an ice cream parlor, offices, and a caretaker’s apartment in the Main Street building.

Views differ on Darby preservation plans [Inquirer]